I like my life. It’s good. I have a lot of freedom. I have a shaky and unpredictable, but generally reasonable income. I have people all over the world who like what I do and help me do it. I love my job.
If any of the following sounds like complaining, I’m sorry for my poor writing skills. I am not complaining. I just feel like a lot of people I interact with ought to know this stuff.
My new book will be out in March. I’m working on arranging speaking engagements, retreats and whatnot to promote the book and to just continue doing my job in general. I often get invitations from people who want me to do this sort of stuff in wherever they are.
There are loads of people out there who appear to believe that I should do what I do for free. The dharma should be freely given, they say. My response is that the dharma should be freely given, but not freely taken. In ancient India monks could give their teaching for free because it was understood that they’d be provided for. This doesn’t work in early 21st Century America or Europe, or, indeed, even in 21st Century Asia, including India. I’d like to address how it actually does work, at least in my world.
I am a one-man, self-financed operation. I am severely incompetent at running this operation. I’m not trying to be funny. It’s the truth! If I could fire me, I would.
I do not make enough money to even consider hiring someone to help (it’s barely enough to cover my own expenses). Hiring unpaid volunteers has never worked out either. They tend to just disappear suddenly or demand so much help in doing the job that I end up doing it myself.
How about a little story to illustrate what’s involved in what I do?
A few years ago, back when I was first starting out, a meditation center located about six hours drive from where I lived at the time asked me to come speak or lead a retreat. I told them how much money I’d like to receive. The figure I quoted was based on how much I thought it would cost to go there, spend the necessary nights at a hotel, feed myself, and come home with something to put toward my rent.
They seemed aghast that I would ask for such an outrageous amount for just a few hours talking and meditating. So I said I could do it for half that amount as long as they agreed to find me a place to stay for free and feed me. I said this knowing if I did it that way I’d be coming home with a lot less to put toward next month’s rent. This amount was still too much for those guys.
So I came down again. This time what I asked for was exactly what I thought it would take to break even and bring precisely $0 back home with me. But I would only break even at that amount if absolutely everything went exactly according to plan. If, for example, I had a flat tire on the way out there it would totally wipe me out. If gas prices rose that weekend, I’d be screwed.
But even that was too much. The folks from the center acted as if I was the worst sort of money-grubbing fake-ass guru in the world for even suggesting I get paid at all. In the end, I didn’t go there. I never heard from those guys again.
When you invite me to come speak at your town there is a lot more involved than the hour or two I’m on stage or even the days I spend leading a retreat. Depending on the location it might cost me anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars just to get to where you are. I also have to put aside other work I could be doing.
A simple one-hour talk involves at least three days work for me; one day to get there, one day when I do the talk, and one day getting home or to the next gig. That’s in an ideal scenario. Usually it involves about a week.
During that time I can’t do any other work. I write every single day when I’m home. Before a new book is out I’m already deeply into the next one. Or else I’m writing my blog or an article someone’s asked me to do.
But in order to work well, I need the proper setting. It’s physically possible for me just open my laptop and start writing pretty much any place. But in real life that’s not how it goes. If things are a little off, the writing doesn’t flow. If there are people talking, for example, or if there’s music playing, or kids running around the place, or if there’s no desk to sit at… There are all kinds of factors that make it pretty much impossible for me to really work on a piece of writing. My apartment is set up to make it as easy as possible for me to write. And even then sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
So when I get invited to do a speaking gig, that’s at the very minimum three days to a week when I can’t do any other work. So you’re not paying for an hour of speaking. You’re paying for a week.
By the way, it costs me pretty much the same amount of money to come to your town to run a multi-day retreat as it does to do a single one-off talk for an hour.
I often try to combine events to cut down on expenses so that I can ask as little as possible for the work I do. So if I have an event in one town, I’ll try to set up a few others nearby. I always check to be sure these events aren’t competing with each other. But sometimes people resent the idea that I’m using their event as a springboard to do other things. That’s annoying because generally the reason I’m able to keep my fees as low as they’re getting is because of these other events.
Staying at hotels is almost never an option for me. The only times I’ve stayed at hotels while on tour is when some event organizer gets me a room. This has happened maybe four times in the past ten years.
That means I sleep on a lot of couches or in spare bedrooms or in rooms that someone has temporarily moved out of so I can stay there (usually somebody’s kid gets to sleep over at a friend’s place and I get the room with the frilly pink bunk bed that’s two feet shorter than my legs).
As I get older, this kind of 19-year-old-punk-rocker-on-tour existence grows progressively less and less exciting and romantic. The kindness and hospitality of these strangers offering up space in their homes is always touching. Very seldom have I had to stay in a place that was truly awful. But it’s happened and I never know when the next one will be.
This is because unless I’ve stayed at a specific place before (which happens at about ¼ of the places I go) I have no idea what I’m getting into until I get there. Are they people who have very different ideas about how warm a place should be than I do? Does the shower work? Are they people who like to have TVs blaring all night long? Is the bed actually going to be a bed or will it be something else? Are there children and pets? If so are they the good kind or the difficult kind (see my book Zen Wrapped in Karma for an example of the latter)? All this and more, I do not know.
Another story. Once I stayed with this guy in a city in Europe. I like to eat cereal for breakfast. I also prefer to burden my hosts as little as I can. So on the way to his place I stopped by a convenience store and bought a box of cereal and a carton of milk. When I got there he looked at my cereal and milk with disgust and said, “I am politically opposed to that kind of food.”
This kind of stuff is stressful. Which is something else that’s a factor. I can’t possibly do this kind of work 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year like a normal job. It would kill me! So whatever you think is a fair hourly wage doesn’t really have any realistic analogue in the kind of work I do.
Then there’s what’s involved in getting from one place to the next. Will there be trains? Will I have to fly? If so, is anyone coming to get me at the airport? Will I need to rent a car? If I don’t know at the outset (and I generally don’t) I have to plan for the most expensive scenario.
And speaking of punk rock, just like in punk rock gigs I have often finished a retreat or whatever somewhere and whoever put it together comes up to me after and says, “I know I promised you a certain amount. Unfortunately we only brought in a third of that. I’m sorry. I hope it’s OK.”
But unlike in punk rock, it’s not OK for me to trash their Zen center in retaliation. Nor do I have a Peter James Grant-type manager to threaten to break their legs unless they come up with the rest. I just have to smile and say, “All men are brothers” then try to figure out how I’m gonna manage till the next gig (and hope they don’t do the same thing).
So, yeah, I know, that famous ever-smiling teacher in the simple ochre robes who is on the cover of every Buddhist magazine appeared in your town and all he did for payment was pass a simple wooden bowl around at the end of the talk. But he was also probably passing that simple wooden bowl around Madison Square Garden where Richard Geer, Uma Thurman, Jeff Bridges and their pals were in attendance.
I don’t usually get gigs like that.
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Our Saturday morning zazen in Culver City now starts at 10:00 am!
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Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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I’ve got a new book coming out soon! Stay up to date on its release schedule, my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
February 3, 2016 Ventura, California Ventura College
February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN& YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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One of the main ways I make money when I’m not on tour (or even when I am) is through your donations to this blog. I won’t get any of the recent Angel City Zen Center fundraiser money. I appreciate your on-going support!